A story of the men who go down to the sea in ships and the iron tradition by which they live— and die
ALBERT RICHARD WETJEN
THE HUMID heat of late afternoon had settled over the port of Lourenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa, and the strong rips of the outgoing tide were already swirling the waters of the harbor. Mr. Loren, the tall gaunt mate of the freighter Maltese Cross, looked at his watch and then peered anxiously along the dock. It was nearly six and the ship had been due to sail at five. The pilot was aboard; the watches standing by; steam up; the hatches battened; and ashore men were lounging by the bollards waiting to cast off the lines.
“Well, where the devil’s Captain Barsdale?” demanded the fretting agent. “I’m the one who gets blamed if you’re late getting out.”
‘Tie’s probably held up at the consul’s,” soothed Mr. Loren. He looked at his watch again and his lined face grew more worried. “I think I’d better run along and see.” “I’ll call him from the dock,” said the agent testily, “on my way home. I can't hang around all night.”
“No, I’ll attend to it.” said the mate hurriedly. "You just run along. We’ll be away within the hour.”
The agent stamped down the gangway muttering to himself, and midships Mr. Mint, the second mate, drew hard on his cigarette and raised his brows at the third engineer.
“I don’t understand why the mate keeps covering the old man,” he observed sourly. “It was a last-minute scramble to get him aboard in Cape Town; then he was half an hour late in Durban. And here it happens again. But Mr. Loren is always on the job for him. If any of us tried it we’d be out on our ear.”
The third engineer shrugged and wiped sweat from his face with a wad of grimy waste.
“He’s been a long time with the Line,” he observed. “Thirty-odd years. That rates something.”
Mr. Mint snorted. “It doesn’t rate the first mate coddling him along. If the old fool had any sense he’d
make a report. They’d give him the ship himself then, and maybe I'd get my own step.”
By the gangway-head Mr. Loren looked at his watch for a last time, and then, making up his mind, called to the third mate on the navigation bridge.
‘Tm going ashore for a minute, Mr. Collins. To the consul’s. If Captain Barsdale shows up, tell him I’ll be right back.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” called the third, and said irritably aside to the quartermaster waiting to handle the wheel, "I’d like to know what the idea is. He’ll probably have to bring him back on a stretcher." The quartermaster shrugged and spat tobacco juice over the rail. It was none of his business.
Mr. Loren stepped briskly ashore, but he ignored entirely the direction in which the consul’s lay. He crossed the plaza instead, dived into a side street, and pushed upon the door of the Connaught Arms. The swarthy fat man behind the bar nodded at him familiarly and then jerked a hand to the back room. Mr. Loren had surmised as much, and his worried face grew tighter as he stepped inside.
Captain Barsdale was at a table with several bottles before him, heatedly arguing some obscure point with two strangers. They seemed cynically amused and were helping themselves to the drinks as they listened, glancing at each other with covert grins. It caused a cold anger inside Mr. Loren. It was bad enough for the old man to keep the ship waiting, but when he made an exhibition of himself as well, it was going too far. He took the captain’s arm and half lifted him.
“Time to go, sir. We’ve been waiting for you nearly an hour. The pilot’s already on board.”
Captain Barsdale turned irritably, his face flushed.
“Eh? Oh, it’s you, Loren. Do you have to run after me every time I step ashore for a spell?”
“We’re late, sir,” explained Mr. Loren soothingly. “Come along.” There was some small protest but it ended as always.
“If you say,” agreed the captain weakly, and stood up, swaying. Mr. Loren eyed him a moment and then poured half a tumbler of rank brandy. Captain Barsdale took a breath and swallowed it, and steadied almost at once. He settled his bill, shook hands solemnly with his table companions, and then unaided walked stiffly at Mr. Loren’s side into the street. He managed the gangway to the Maltese Cross's deck, got on the navigation bridge, and. staring fixedly ahead and gripping the for’ard rail with both hands, said quite distinctly to the pilot, “Shall I order them to cast off?”
“The spring first, captain,” agreed the pilot. “And then the for’ard lines. I want to swing out a bit by the bow.”
Captain Barsdale gravely megaphoned the orders to the port watch and then gripped the rail tighter. He would not, as Mr. Loren, staring anxiously at him from the fo’c’s’le-head knew, remember a thing about all this next day. He was a broken old man, but drunk or sober he could automatically handle a ship. So the Maltese Cross put to sea.
WELL, how is he?” asked Mr. Mint the next morning, when he dropped into the pantry for an early coffee. The steward grinned and held both hands at some distance from his head. "He's got a whopper,” he confided. “Been taking half the medicine chest—and his coffee black, laced with rum.”
“That ought to give him another good start,” the second mate observed. “I’ve served under some funny skippers before, but never one who fell around like this. And never with a mate who eased the old man around as this guy does. What’s the score?”
“Well, he’s easy to sail with,” the steward pointed out with tolerance. “Doesn’t bother anyone except when he gets one of his spells. And the mate seems to like him. I think they were together as boys.”
“When you’re running a ship you’re not supposed to have spells,” said Mr. Mint virtuously. “And what’s being boys got to do with it? I’ve a good mind to report him myself.”
The steward looked at him. “I don’t think I’d try that, sir,” he said dryly. “You can’t tell how the head office would take it, and Mr. Loren certainly wouldn’t back you up.”
“I suppose not,” grumbled the second, “but it’s certainly queer how Loren nurses the old coot along.”
He brooded on that for some time while he drank more coffee. He was a young and normally good-natured man but very ambitious, and for two voyages now he had resented serving under a captain who fell into his bunk more often than he was able to climb in it. He rankled under a sense of bitter injustice that such a man should be able to retain a command while he, Mr. Mint, who was smart, sober, conscientious and hard working—he was quite frank about it—had to watch his every step to retain even a second mate’s berth, for the port captain of the Line was a pretty stiff old buzzard and tolerated little. It was a mystery he hadn’t got wise to Captain Barsdale and eased him out long ago, Mr. Mint considered, although of course in the home port a skipper didn’t hang around a ship or the docks much and no one particularly cared just what his conduct was ashore. Probably Mr. Loren, the mate, covered him there too anyway. And why?
“Well, someone ought to report him,” he said aloud, frowning, and then went moodily to his cabin, while the steward looked after him and shook his head. There were a lot of things Mr. Mint didn’t understand. But you had to excuse a guy who was burning to get his step.
Up in Captain Barsdale’s cabin on the lower bridge, Mr. Loren stood looking down at the master huddled in the chair before his desk He was in pyjamas still, and unshaven, his stout body sagging and his florid face splotched and raddled. Not even the cropped bristle of white mustache and the silvery white hair could make him look like a master mariner now, and he was shakily slopping rum into his black coffee again.
“I wouldn’t take any more, sir,” said the mate gently. “You’ve had enough to straighten up on ”
“I guess that’s so,” the other agreed And then added irritably, “I didn’t make a fool of myself getting her to sea yesterday, did I?”
The mate shook his head. “You were all right, sir. But I don’t know how you do it. The pilot handled everything and didn’t seem to notice.”
Captain Barsdale gulped down the laced coffee and sighed. “That’ll have to hold me then. I’ll be all right for the run to Mombasa.” He was quiet for awhile and then looked up at his gaunt first mate. “I’m a blasted nuisance, Loren, to myself and to you. Especially you. I don’t know why you stand for it. They’d probably give you the ship if you complained to the office about me loud enough. You know that.”
“Probably, sir,” agreed Mr. Loren gently. “But I’ve plenty of time.”
“Time,” muttered Captain Barsdale. He sagged with the weariness of age, and looked into his empty coffee cup, and shook his white head. “Yes, time, Loren. You’ve been a good mate. And it’s been a long time since the square-rigged days, when I was first of the Brackadale and you were a green apprentice.”
The mate drew a big hand across his eyes and laughed a little. “Not too long for me to remember when I went overside off the Horn, sir, and you went in after me.” “You’ve more than paid that back,” nodded the captain. “Much more than paid it. You’ve been carrying me for years. How many years? I sometimes forget—things.” “Five years, sir,” said the mate. And he added gently again, “But don’t talk of my carrying you. You just haven’t been well since that voyage.”
“Ah, yes,” said the captain, “that voyage. I’ve had these crazy spells ever since.” He stood up abruptly. “Well, this one’s over. I’ll get a shower and dress and be on deck in a short time.”
“And how about that, sir?” Mr. Loren nodded at the rum bottle. “Shall I lock it up?”
Captain Barsdale hesitated for a moment and bit his lip. “Yes, Loren,” he said at last and he sounded very tired. “If it’ll make you feel better, maybe you should lock it up.” He appeared on the navigation bridge later, dignified and austere in his uniform, and after one look Mr. Mint
muttered aside to the third mate, "Well. Loren's straightened him out of that anyway. But I'll bet he'll fall by the wayside again when we reach Mombasa, maybe before.” “You couldn’t get a bet on the ship on that deal,” said the third, disgusted. “And say, I hear you were talking of reporting to the office about it.”
Mr. Mint went red. “That steward talks too much !” he snapped. “I just dribbled with the idea, but where would I be if it fell through? The port captain being an old shipmate of the skipper’s and him being with the Line thirty years. I was just burned up, that’s all.”
“You know,” said the third thoughtfully, “it’s funny. They tell me he hardly ever touched a drop up until about five years ago. I wonder what set him off?”
Mr. Mint flicked his cigarette over the rail and scowled. “I should worry about that. What does worry me is the way these old buzzards in command hang on.” He relented a little then and added, “I suppose it’s the pension they all figure on. Nice thing for a man to look forward to. The way this Line treats you, you have to practically be on crutches before they deliver the half pay.”
And Captain Barsdale, tranquilly unaware he was a subject of gossip among his own crew—Mr. Loren always assured him that no one had noticed him in his cups— paced the bridge and made his routine inspections in the thorough, efficient manner of a man who has known ships for as long, almost, as he could walk. Something of Mr. Loren’s strain passed; the lines on his face relaxed, and he was visibly relieved, though every time the captain went below and then reappeared on deck he had a moment of tightness. But nothing happened until they were almost up to Mombasa, and then one noon, with all the officers lined on the bridge for the sun sight. Captain Barsdale came stumbling up with his sextant, clung to the rail for a moment, and started unsteadily for the flying bridge. He could hardly make the monkey ladder.
Mr. Mint looked sideways at the third mate and winked, but Mr. Loren gnawed his underlip and swore beneath his breath. He went on the flying bridge and steadied the captain against the standard compass.
“The sun’s this way, sir,” he said gently, easing him around.
“Sure, sure,” snapped the captain thickly. “You’re telling me? Gotta shoot the sun.”
He groped at the sextant’s eyepiece, while Mr. Loren shot his own sight with what calmness he could muster and then took the captain’s instrument. “I’ll work it out, sir,” he assured him, but Captain Barsdale was obstinate.
“Work out my own—blasted sights,” he stated, and clawed down to the chartroom. Mr. Loren shook his head frowningly at Mr. Mint and the third mate, and they repaired to the bridge wing to wait.
“Nice, isn’t it?” said Mr. Mint darkly.
“We stick around outside until the old man gets through fumbling. And we have to call him ‘sir!’ What a ship!”
ONCE INSIDE the chartroom, Mr.
Loren carefully closed both doors and also the window that opened into the wheelhouse. Captain Barsdale collapsed heavily on the settee and, putting his face in his hands, suddenly began to cry.
“I can’t go on with it, Loren,” he choked. “They already know enough to bust me. They know I’m drinking.”
The mate swallowed hard. There is something terrible in seeing a once strong man cry.
“Who knows? The office?”
“Who else would matter? And I can’t help myself. They even threatened me.”
The mate bit his lip and laid his sextant carefully on the chart table. The sight could wait awhile.
“Why should they threaten you, sir?
I notice you’ve been worse this trip,” he said slowly. “Always before you could hang on while we were at sea. But now you’re drinking out of port. Who gave it to you? The steward?”
“I had some hidden,” the captain whimpered. “I needed it. And it wasn’t for the boy’s memory this time.”
Mr. Loren shook his head, puzzled.
The old man had been slowly going to ruin for years, until now he was little more than a shell. And since that voyage five years before, when his only son had been lost taking a lifeboat across a swollen sea, he’d gone completely under. His son had been his third mate and he had sent h'm away in preference to the first mate with the idea the boy was capable and the experience would do him good.
There hadn’t seemed much danger. It was just a run HERBERT MORTON STOOPS down-wind to pick the crew off a sinking fishing trawler, with a further run to Captain Barsdale’s ship when he had worked her to leeward. But something had happened. No one was quite sure what. The lifeboat had broached to, turned over and vanished, and with it the third mate and two men of the crew. Captain Barsdale had never forgiven himself. He felt he should have sent his first mate, and that he was entirely responsible for the tragedy. He’d really taken to drinking then, when ashore; let everything go. But only on this last voyage had he been actually and almost continuously intoxicated at sea. Mr. Loren couldn’t understand it.
“But just what’s wrong?” he asked gently. “You only have to hang on for another year to get your pension.”
He knew Captain Barsdale had saved nothing, hadn’t been able to, and had a morbid fear of being forced into the Seamen’s Home. He had considered at least that the old man would watch himself until his time expired. But this behavior out of port was a puzzle.
“It’s nothing,” said the captain thickly. “Nothing at all. I’m just getting too old, I guess.”
“You’ve something on your mind, sir,” the mate insisted. “Tell me.”
“And I tell you, it's nothing!” the captain blazed with quick exasperation. “I think I’ll go below.”
“It’s probably a good idea, sir,” agreed the mate He opened the chartroom door for the old man, and, after he had left, nodded to the other mates that they could come in. He felt nervous himself, nervous and apprehensive. He had known Captain Barsdale for years, and there was a curious, fierce strain now about the man he could sense but could not understand. And he had always before thought he could understand. You can’t serve under a man half a lifetime and not think that. But here something eluded him. If the office knew the old man was drinking, as he had himself stated, why hadn’t they done something about it? It hardly made sense, knowing the office. They certainly wouldn’t refrain from a matter of kindness or charity. The office was pretty hard-boiled. Mr. Loren shook his head and went to work out his sight. It might be the old man was actually losing his mind. The idea alarmed him.
“Mr. Mint,” he said, shortly before he left the chartroom, “and you, Mr. Collins.” He looked at the second and third mates with hard eyes. "The old man’s pretty sick. We’ve got to make allowances. And if he gives you any funny-sounding orders when you’re on watch, you’d better call me first. Quietly, of course.”
“It’s a bit unusual, sir, isn’t it?” suggested Mr. Mint with a half sneer. "I've been sick that way myself.” , Mr. Loren's hard face grew harder. "You've a lot to learn, Mr. Mint,” he said quietly. “For one thing, to keep your mouth shut.”
The second mate colored a little, but there was something in the mate’s voice and manner that tightened him. And he dropped his eyes. “Yes, sir,” he said awkwardly. “Perhaps you’re right.”
THE succeeding hours as the Maltese Cross plowed up the coast toward Mozambique were a torment for the first mate. He was afraid of what Captain Barsdale might do. A man with a cracking mind, torn with remorse over a dead son, faced with a penniless old age if he lost his pension and continua ly filled with whisky, might do most anything. Mr. Loren discovered no particular blame for the captain. He had too much respect for what he had been, and he understood the old man had simply disintegrated. Other captains had done so before from various reasons. It was an old story at sea. But Mr. Loren did not want to have it end in ghastly disaster for a man under whom he had served in his youth, a man who had once, long ago, saved his life; so he almost haunted the bridge, and there was not an order Captain Barsdale gave that he did not check and recheck, even if it only concerned putting lashings on the deck cargo.
He was frankly afraid.
Twice in the middle watch Mr. Mint had called him to okay an order for change of course, and twice there had been no reason for alarm, though the mate had no occasion really to think there was. He was just acting on general principles. Captain Barsdale had seemed very curious as to why his first mate should suddenly appear in the middle of the night, when he was supposed to be sleeping, to look at the chart and then nod mysteriously in agreement at the second, and it irked him.
“You don’t have to follow me around like a pup!” he blazed once in the chartroom. “I’m not going to wreck the ship because of a drink or two ! I can navigate with my eyes shut!”
“I know you can, sir,” agreed Mr.* Loren. “But you’ll have to forgive me. I’m just worried about you.”
“You needn’t be. You can go to blazes!” snapped the captain. He had abandoned all pretense about his drinking now. He seemed to have broken entirely, was constantly intoxicated, and would no more listen to the first mate’s attempts at reason.
“It’s my life,” he stated belligerently, “and maybe my last trip ! And you mind your own business, Loren. Or do I have to order you in irons?”
“Not yet, sir,” said the mate thinly. He went red. “But try and pull yourself together.” His voice was heavy with regret. “I’d never have thought it of Captain Barsdale though, acting like this on the high seas.” He added deliberately, “First mate of the full-rigger Garrytown when I was ’prenticed. Master of the clipper ship Faraway. The man who saved the Wanderer in the gale of ’98; and salvaged the Mandalay in ’02. You’d better go below.”
Captain Barsdale started to explode and then checked himself. “All right, Loren,” he said more quietly. “I’m making a fool of myself, I know. It’s my nerves.”
Mr. Loren nodded shortly and left him, and went on the navigation bridge to where Mr. Mint was holding down the afternoon watch.
“I’ll be taking her with you tonight,” he said. “It’s a bit touchy on this coast.”
Mr. Mint stared. “What’s touchy about it, sir? I’ve made this run a dozen times myself. We’re all clear.”
“Of course,” said the mate hastily. “I was just meaning there’s a bad current setting to the west this time of the year and you’ve got to be careful. The big reef that runs out has caught a lot better ships than this.” He did not dare mention he had a vague idea forming. Captain Barsdale had said a few curious things lately.
“I think I know my business, sir,” said Mr. Mint a little annoyed. And the mate said soothingly, “I know you do. But it’s just an idea of mine.”
“The old man, eh?” observed Mr. Mint, his brow furrowed. “Well, he’s certainly been going round in circles lately.” He looked up then at the gaunt mate and added curiously, “Do you know, sir, I’m beginning to feel a bit sorry for him myself. What’s the matter with him?”
“If you ever hold a record like his,” said the mate harshly, “you won’t need anybody to feel sorry for you.”
Mr. Mint shrugged and said no more, but he was curiously aware that he, himself, had changed too. He sensed, almost imperceptibly it seemed, that there was a tragedy being enacted right before his eyes. The white-haired old sailor that was Captain Barsdale, and who had done heroic things in his own time, now visibly crumbling away. And his first mate, Mr. Loren, desperately trying to uphold the wreck. Mr. Mint had of late been also uncomfortably aware of a growing respect for Mr. Loren, even of an admiration for the mate’s efforts to support the old man. None of it really made sense, and yet in some way it did. Or did it? He wasn’t sure.
ON THE bridge that night, on the twelve-to-four watch, coming up to Mozambique, Mr. Mint did not even feel irritable when Captain Barsdale appeared about two bells, one o’clock. He felt strangely compassionate instead. The old man was quite obviously hardly able to stand, yet was dressed in his impeccable uniform whites, and wearing his whitetopped, gold-embroidered cap.
“What’s the course?” he demanded thickly, and when Mr. Mint told him he stumbled off to the chartroom. Mr. Mint set his mind firmly to remember that this was the man who had been master of clipper ships; who had saved the Wanderer in the gale of ’98; and salvaged the Mandalay in ’02. After all, he thought, he was a sailor once, and anyone’s liable to go to pieces. But he sent a man down to call the mate.
“We’re pretty close to Mozambique,” he said when Mr. Loren arrived. “You told me to let you know when we’re coming up.” And he added quietly, “The skipper’s in the chartroom.”
“Anything said yet?” asked the mate nervously.
Mr. Mint shook his head. “Not yet, sir.”
Captain Barsdale came out of the chartroom, weaving a little and his eyes glassy. Mr. Loren took his arm. "Don’t you think you’d better turn in, sir?” he suggested gently. "Nothing to keep you on deck.”
"Still a wet nurse, eh, Loren?” the old man muttered. He thrust the mate aside. "Let me alone!” And then he went into the wheelhouse and stood by the helmsman. “You’re off your course,” he snapped, and the helmsman with a muttered oath of astonishment spun the wheel. He must have been half asleep to let the ship veer a full two points. On the outer bridge Mr. Loren saw the bow begin to swing across the stars and he spoke harshly aside to the second mate. “See if the captain’s ordered the course changed !”
Mr. Mint reported in a few seconds. “No, sir. The course is still good.”
Mr. Loren looked at the sky and then went back and looked at the compass himself, and shook his head, puzzled. The helmsman shouldn’t have been that much off, but apparently he had. He couldn’t quite understand it. The man was a reliable A.B. and had been with them for several trips. He swore under his breath and went in to look at the chart. Rain squalls were driving down and a rack was beginning to cover the sky so that visibility was limited. Still, that was no cause for concern. The course and the charts gave them good clearance. He went into the wheelhouse and spoke to Captain Barsdale again.
“I don’t think there’s any need for you to stay up, sir.” he repeated, genuinely concerned. “Why not get some rest?”
“I’ll stay up as long as I feel like it!’’ said the old man. His voice was so cracked and unnatural, the mate stared at him uneasily.
“You must be sick, sir,” he said with some anxiety. “Let me help you below.”
“I’m not sick,” snapped the other. “Get on the bridge!” Mr. Loren shook his head and left him. vaguely alarmed. But he dissembled before Mr. Mint.
“Do you see the coast light yet?” he enquired. Mr. Mint flicked a half-burned cigarette to leeward and demanded with bitterness. “How the devil can you see anything in this smother?” The warm rain was hammering down.
There was nothing the mate could say to that, so he took up his station in the bridge-wing while the ship drove steadily ahead. Once or twice he looked, puzzled, at the stars, when they appeared through the cloud drift. There was something wrong and he couldn’t place it. Several times he went into the wheelhouse to jx'rsuade Captain Barsdale to go below, but the old man always refused with thick profanity, and, quite openly, took a flask from his hip and drank. Mr. Loren had never felt quite so humiliated in his life. The very knowing grin on the helmsman’s face turned his stomach. But there was nothing he could do a master is master — so he returned to the outer bridge again.
TT WAS close to six bells, three o’clock in
the morning, when the thing happened, without warning, in the driving rain that obscured everything. The Maltese Cross, driving ahead at a steady ten knots, struck hard, sagged back a little, drove ahead again with her propellers churning, finally rested, impotent. The shock liad knocked down every man on deck and sent all the galley pots clashing and clanging around, as it did most of the pantry’s crockery. On the bridge Mr. Loren crawled to his feet, wiped the rain from his face and jammed the telegraphs to stop. Mr. Mint was swearing in the bridgewing as he picked himself up, and in the wheelhouse the helmsman and Captain Barsdale were entangled in one corner. Apart from all this there seemed to be no particular damage. But Mr. Loren’s face was drained white and his jaw set hard.
“How did we hit?” he croaked. “How?”
"What’re you talking about?” demanded the second mate, half-hysterical, and crawling up toward him. “We’re aground. You can’t ask questions about that!”
“I was just talking,” panted the mate and started for the wheelhouse. Captain
Barsdale came out staggering, his face ashen and his eyes wide with horror. The easy swells were working the Maltese Cross, causing her to sway and lurch on the sandbank she was fast to. Mr. Loren ¿witched on the bridge lights and in their glare he saw Captain Barsdale moving uncertainly toward the port companion to the lower bridge. He was like a man in a dream, groping and shaking as he reached for the companion-head rails. Then suddenly the swell gave the ship a vicious upthrust and he missed his hold, staggered once or twice, and fell the full length of the steps. His neck was broken when Mr. Loren and the second mate reached him.
“So he was sick!” exploded Mr. Mint bitterly. “I’d say he was drunk ! And what do you call this? No wonder the compass was two points out. How else were we off course?” He held up a large magnet that had spilled from Captain Barsdale’s side pocket. Mr. Loren took off his uniform jacket and laid it over the dead master’s face.
“Throw that overside, Mr. Mint,” he said quietly. “I’ll try and explain later.”
“And who the devil’s going to explain to the Enquiry?” shouted the second mate. “It happened in my watch. They’ll hook me for this. But they won’t ...”
Mr. Loren caught his arm. “Throw it overside,” he said. “Captain Barsdale was a sick man. I don’t think there’s any real damage done. We’ve missed the reef apparently. Hit sand. Our compasses were in error. You see? We’ll be backing off at high tide.”
“In error!” choked the second mate, and hefted the magnet in his palm. “What in . . . !”
The mate clamped on Mr. Mint’s hand. “Listen, Mint,” he said very quietly. “I was ’prenticed under Captain Barsdale before you were born. He saved my life once, when I was a boy on the full-rigger Brackadale. Yet maybe that isn’t important. I íe made me a sailor and an officer. Do you understand that? And you’ve just seen a sailor die. Never mind the other stuff. As for me! Remember, you don’t let a man down when you’re his first mate!”
“I should get myself into trouble ...” Mr. Mint began bitterly, and the first mate said again. “Throw that magnet overside. It isn’t important.” And he added, “Not now. I’ve tried to cover the old man. It’s attempted barratry, of course, but no one need ever know. I never thought he’d take such a job, but let’s skip it. I didn’t realize the firm was in such a bad way they’d ask him to do that. He was desperate and the drink had taken him. And of course they had him on his pension, and the fact they might fire him before it came due. I knew he was scared of that. He never saved anything. He gave most of what he made to the widows of the men who died with his only son. I won’t go into details about that, but he thought he was to blame. It’s the sea. Mint. You’ve got to stand by the skipper!”
Air. Mint swallowed hard and ran his hands over his face. The Maltese Cross was wholly awake now. men shouting, men running, the third mate hysterically calling for Mr. Loren and orders.
“We’ll probably get her off at high tide tomorrow,” said Air. Loren tightly. “And it was the fault of the compasses, you see? . . . Let him go out with a clean ticket!”
Mr. Alint stared at him again, a long level look, and he saw the mate’s hard eyes were almost appealing. But it wasn’t that that Ux)k him by the throat. He nodded, licking his lips. F'or one swift instance he had been given the vision of Magellan and Drake, and of all the sea, and the men who served it. For one swift instance he understood. as he would understand now all the rest of his life. The iron tradition !
“So you had to stand by him,” he whispered, as the strength of the mate’s gentle statement came to him. “You couldn’t let him down—not even nowafter this . . .He was your skipper ...” he tossed the magnet overside with a decisive gesture. “I didn’t know how you felt.”
Mr. Loren pressed the second mate’s arm.
“This isn’t a bribe,” he said evenly. “Though I’d take it kindly if you’d forget things. They’ll probably give me the ship when we arrive home. There’s not much else they can do. as a matter of fact, with
what I know. But I’d like you to come as my mate next voyage.”
Mr. Mint drew a deep breath. He looked at the huddled figure of Captain Barsdale at his feet, and then he looked again at Mr. Loren, and his face was brave with understanding.
“Very well,” he said quietly. He reached out a hand to touch the first mate’s arm. “And I won’t let you down either, sir.”